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Business Observer Friday, Mar. 29, 2019 6 months ago

New private club seeks to be hub for business leaders

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Waterworks is a business and social club that combines new with old in Sarasota.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Former major league baseball player-turned-entrepreneur Robin Jennings has a new business in Sarasota that caters to a high-end clientele, mostly people who own or run a business.

But Jennings wants his business, Waterworks, to be a secret.

Sort of.    

Waterworks is a business and social club that combines new with old. Think alcohol storage lockers in a building that made its debut on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Or Wi-Fi connected co-work space next to antique clocks on bookshelves lined with hardcover Edgar Allan Poe books.

The crux of Waterworks, says Jennings, is to be whatever its mostly CEO-type clientele want it to be: morning coffeehouse; lunchtime meeting spot; intimate evening lounge. Or something in between. And to do it all in a quiet private setting, with no reservations or crowds. (Waterworks, on 1005 N. Orange Ave., just north of downtown Sarasota, is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Fridays. It opened for business last fall.)

“I think Sarasota is finally big enough to have a collective,” like this says Jennings, 47, who grew up partially in Bradenton and played baseball at State College of Florida in the early 1990s.

Big cities, from New York to San Francisco, have business/social clubs that provide executives a place to do business, unwind — or both. In Tampa, there’s several, including the Tampa Club, the Centre Club, and probably the most prominent in the region, the University Club, founded in 1946.

"You shouldn’t be in the hospitality business unless you like exceeding customers’ expectations. We love exceeding customers’ expectations." — Robin Jennings, Waterworks

University Club President Harry Costello says the organization— like many businesses — has shifted its focus to capture more market share among millennials. That ranges from access to Tampa Bay Lightning games to themed parties and events. “We are all over the board trying to give people what they want,” says Costello, a University Club member since 1984 who also heads Florida operations for public relations firm Hill+Knowlton Strategies. “The future of this club is not with old men. The future is with young people.”

Sarasota once had its own University Club, on the top floor of the Ellis Building on Main Street downtown. Unaffiliated with the one in Tampa, it thrived for 40 years, until it shuttered in 2009 — a victim of the recession and changing consumer tastes.  

“Something like this hasn’t been here in a while,” says Jennings, adding Waterworks isn’t trying to replicate the University Club, which, for some, leaned toward an old boys’ club feel. “Not everyone understands what a concept like this is.”

The two mainstay concepts at Waterworks, Jennings says, are top-notch customer service and a privacy ethos akin to what happens at Waterworks stays at Waterworks. On service, Jennings calls the Waterworks way Ritz 101. “You shouldn’t be in the hospitality business unless you like exceeding customers’ expectations,” says Jennings. “We love exceeding customers’ expectations.”

On privacy, nearly every aspect of Waterworks is designed to be discreet. For one, members are forbidden from taking pictures and posting to social media sites; the only Waterworks pictures on Facebook came from a member’s private party held in December. Jennings recently even had to ask two members who violated the social media policy to take some photos down.  

Jennings is coy about how many members Waterworks has — or how many it wants to have. The fees are also a closely guarded secret. (Annual fees, according to interviews with several prospective members, are less, in general, than a yacht club or country club.)

Jennings hasn’t done any marketing, save, he says, for a onetime ad in SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, He initially turned down multiple interview requests for this story, and declined to be in any pictures. Members come through word of mouth and referrals from current members. “I’m happy with where we are on members and where we need to be,” Jennings says.

Several current Waterworks members declined to be interviewed for this story, citing Jennings’ penchant for secrecy and privacy. Other business leaders in the Sarasota area who have been approached for sponsored membership also declined to comment.

Jennings and his girlfriend/business partner, Rachel McAree, bought the 4,800-square-foot Waterworks building in February 2018 for $1.3 million, Sarasota property records show. Jennings declines to disclose how much he, McAree and other business partners have since invested in the property.

The building, meanwhile, has a not-as-secret rich history: Built in 1926, it once housed pumps and lines for Sarasota’s water system. It was later a storage warehouse, and by the early 2000s, it was home to MethodFactory, a Sarasota software firm that retrofitted the building to fit its startup vibe. In 2017, a cybersecurity firm took occupancy for a brief time. MethodFactory officials sold it to McAree, according to Sarasota County Property Appraiser documents.

The building, under Jennings, has gone back to its older feel, with exposed bricks and pipes, crystal lamps and chandeliers and art-deco style paintings. Furniture includes several Timothy Oulton handcrafted leather couches. One person who had been in both variations of the property, says Jennings, commented that it had gone from “frat boy warehouse to classy Waterworks.”

Jennings, who played 93 games in the major leagues from 1996 to 2001, with the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds, among other teams, has more rules he believes make Waterworks unique. The dress code? Casual chic — or in Florida parlance, no flip-flops. Cell phones out in the open after 7 p.m. are a no-no. Calls may be taken outside, but phones inside must be on vibrate and in the pocket.  

“We did this as a place where we knew we wanted to go,” says Jennings, who co-owns a coffee house in Utah and has also owned a woodworking business and coached youth baseball. “Nothing here is condescending or fake. Everything is real and sincere.”

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